Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pursuing the Virtuous Life

One of the things I learned during my days as a teacher in fundamentalist Christian education was the fact that many of America's founding fathers had lists of virtues or rules of behavior that were good things for the students to know and emulate. Ben Franklin had a list of thirteen, while George Washington had one hundred ten rules to follow. All in all the rules and lists are not bad things for people to check out and learn from. We obviously could use more civility and manners in today's society.

The problem comes when we try to make ourselves virtuous by following a list of rules. Ben Franklin realized that while he had become a better person in many ways, he had not reached the state of moral perfection that he hoped to attain. Many churches preach, and many people believe, that following the dictates of their church or a set of rules from a particular group will help you be "right with God." Many other churches who don't have a long list of "standards" still preach steps to be closer to God, or any number of things you can do to be a better Christian. This kind of thinking, while it may make life a bit better, is nothing more than man's attempt to do what only God can do.

What is forgotten in all the lists to follow is grace. Grace is the word that Christians use when they are talking about salvation. They are correct; we are saved by grace, not by anything we do. What is so often neglected is that we also live and grow by grace. As God's children, there is nothing we can do to make him love us less. We can not tear ourselves away from God's grace and love. It is also true that there is nothing we can do that will make God love us any more. We cannot add to the Father's grace and love toward us. I love my son and daughter unconditionally. They cannot do anything that is going to make me stop loving them, and they do not have to do anything to earn my love. So it is with God. He loves us, period.

As we learn to accept and rest in that love it grows in us and our love for God and for others grows. The way we grow in the Father's love is by spending time with him, seeing each day as an opportunity to be guided and shaped by the Spirit. We learn about the Father by looking at the Son, by immersing ourselves in the Gospels and seeing Jesus as he really is. The first disciples spent three years with the Master, eating and drinking with him , traveling with him, hearing his teachings and seeing how he lived those teachings out. After that, they were given the Holy Spirit and went out and turned the world upside down. We have the account of Jesus' life and teachings, and we have the same Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us to become like Jesus.

Our lives do not hang on man-made rules or anything else that comes from our own efforts. We can become better people, but the Father's goal is for us to become like Christ. That can only come from the grace of God working in our lives through the Spirit. It happens because God loves us. Rest in that love. Don't try to be a virtuous person. Instead, learn from Jesus and let the Spirit teach you. Trust in the fact that the Father is shaping you into the image of Jesus. As the old hymn says, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace."

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